BEMIDJI -- When Brian Dow was starting out as an artist, he tried to sell his paintings in the Walmart parking lot to make ends meet. Passersby laughed at him.
“There are hundreds of times that I wanted to give up,” Dow said. “I told myself, ‘I’m going to prove to these people that I’m going to make it,’ because they laughed at me. I thought while you go to work 8 to 4:30, (and) you don’t like your job, I’m doing what I like to do.”
Their laughter didn’t dissuade him, it instead fueled him to press on. Now, a mere seven years later, some of his paintings have sold for five-figure prices and earlier this month one of his designs was sported by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. in the Congressional House Chamber in Washington, D.C.
Dow, originally from Ponemah in Red Lake, came from humble beginnings and has earned a respected and well-known name for himself as a visual artist.
Picking up a paintbrush
Dow never pictured himself where he is now. A few years ago, he was working as a custodian and housekeeper at the Palace Casino Hotel in Cass Lake, living paycheck to paycheck. One day, he just knew he had to make a change.
“I told myself, ‘Okay, we’ve gotta do something different, what is it going to be?’” Dow said.
He began writing a manuscript but soon realized how long writing a book takes, and turned to sketching, using white charcoal pencil on black graphite paper. Soon after, he began to paint.
“I was afraid to pick up the paintbrush,” Dow said. “It was hard, but when I made my first painting, I said, ‘Wow, look at that, look what I did.’”
Then, he started sharing his paintings with the world.
Dow remembers the exact day his career started: Jan. 14, 2014. That was the day he officially decided he was going to be an artist.
It was also when he first sold two of his paintings within a week to women in Colorado and California, for nearly $500 apiece, and realized that art might be a realistic career path for him.
“That’s where I realized that there’s money to be made in art,” he remarked.
And where Dow began as a custodian, now one of his paintings hangs in the casino’s lobby.
He didn’t have formal training or a background in art, like many, he was interested in drawing and art growing up, but didn’t take it further until he reached adulthood. Dow took a year of classes at Leech Lake Tribal College where art instructor Dewey Goodwin served as a mentor for him.
Though he has only been working as an artist for a few years, Dow’s style has significantly evolved during that time.
So has his confidence.
“As a beginning artist, I didn’t sign my work. I didn’t think anyone would want my name on their wall,” Dow said. That has quickly changed.
Dow describes his work as, “(painting) my culture on canvas from old chiefs to the present day with stories.” Motifs of Turtle Island, traditional dancers and Ojibwe florals are omnipresent throughout Dow’s work.
He started with many silhouettes of Native American imagery. He then moved to more colorful designs and lately has been experimenting with Ojibwe florals.
Dow said the floral designs represent the Ojibwe culture, and “allow other tribal members from different tribes to recognize that you are Indigenous people from the woodlands area,” when on pow wow circuits.
The designs are Dow’s interpretation of old Ojibwe floral patterns, continuing a tradition of keeping a legacy alive for years to come.
“Before I started painting these old Ojibwe floral designs I had asked an elder beader whom I met at my first vending show if it was okay for me to paint these designs from long ago,” Dow said. “He told me to paint what I feel. ‘Don't bother what people will say about who you are and what you paint. You are here to paint for the people.’"
Dow said he crafted his floral designs respectfully, doing lots of research in recreating them.
“To many it is medicine. If I can make something that many people love, that's medicine for them. I am just here to provide that for them if they want to hang a painting in their home or office, or even wearing my artwork,” he said. “I've finally created something that thousands of people love throughout Turtle Island, and I appreciate that.”
The meaning behind much of his work is rooted in Ojibwe values. One of his most prestigious hanging paintings resides in the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis. This painting depicts the Anishinaabe creation story.
In recent months, more people have seen Dow’s work than ever before. He began collaborating with Kevin Johnson of myBemidji, and printing some of his designs on face masks.
Dow is proudest of one of his latest series of paintings -- a set of three Ojibwe floral designs on black backgrounds -- which he made during Indigenous Peoples’ Week. These are featured heavily on masks and shirts.
“I made them into hoodies and shirts and masks, and they all sold out very quickly. Thankfully, the people loved these designs,” he said. “My first hoodie order sold out within 36 hours.”
His first shipment of masks sold out in less than a day.
Dow currently does all of his painting in his Bemidji apartment. Looking around the wall of his apartment at some of his prints and originals, he said, “this is just a fraction of what I have made during my seven years of being an artist. There’s a lot of work out there that I never photographed.”
Dow said Johnson of myBemidji contacted him in December wanting to work with an Indigenous artist.
“We worked together as a collaboration, so my work will be sold in his new shop,” he said. “It’s a good partnership there.”
Dow said he was also thankful for the collaboration with Jason Schoning of Happy 420 Merch in downtown Bemidji, who has worked with him on the rollout of his hoodies.
In the time before COVID-19, Dow sold his work at pow wows, fairs, art shows and more. Now, since COVID, his work has exploded on social media.
“That’s where I get all my sales from, is social media,” he said. He described it as a “chain reaction,” as when one person sees his design on a hoodie and tells someone else about it, he reaches a further audience than he could’ve imagined.
On display for thousands
You don’t have to look far to see Dow’s work.
It hangs in medical complexes, tribal colleges, tribal council buildings, elementary and high schools, Bemidji State University, drug and rehabilitation facilities, casinos, a local juvenile center, on clothing, and most notably the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis.
Dow has also painted billboards in Red Lake and at the Red Lake Nation borders and has completed murals at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center in Minneapolis and Thief River Falls Seven Clans Casino Indoor Waterpark.
“I can say that thousands and thousands of people have some of my work,” Dow said, noting that he has sold paintings to people in more than 40 states.
Along with the thousands of people who own a piece of his artwork and clothing, even more have seen it in the past few weeks, all around the world.
Recently, one of Dow’s masks was gifted to U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, during a visit she made to the area in late January. She wore the mask, which was printed with Dow’s tobacco leaf design, to speak in front of Congress. Dow was unaware of this until he started getting tagged in photos on Facebook, and saw a photo of Omar wearing it while on the House floor.
Dow was initially surprised and a bit conflicted, as he doesn’t consider himself a political person and wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it. Now, he is thankful for the light it is shedding on his work.
“When I saw this on the Congress floor, I was happy, I didn’t lose my humbleness about it,” he said. “My artwork is not politically based, my artwork is for everyone.”
Dow says he tries to stay humble, generally not seeking publicity for his work, as he feels he is doing what the Creator intended him to do.
He also ribbed that Omar was wearing her mask upside down, but that it still looked nice.
When he began making art years ago, Dow hoped it would serve as a way to support his family and give him purpose. He has found success in both, and now has ambitions to open his own small business and online store.
In the more distant future, Dow hopes to finish that book he started, and pass on his knowledge to others. He said his 10-year goal is to be a better public speaker, to “have a strong voice and let people hear it.”
His advice to other artists is “just don’t give up.”
Dow also hopes to hire some assistants in the future to help more with the printing and distribution of his work, so he can get back to what he loves to do most: painting.